20211120 timbers defense

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Timbers’ defense is back in focus after a second straight loss, with the team having given up five goals in the second halves of their last two games. On Saturday, those concessions led to the 2-1 loss at the LA Galaxy that snapped the team’s eight-game unbeaten run. Tonight at Providence Park, three Vancouver Whitecaps goals over the final 27 minutes turned a 2-0 Timbers lead into a deflating 3-2 loss.

“We had the game in our hands, the way we played in the first half …,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his postgame press conference. “We found a way to give the game back to them.”

The Timbers went into halftime after one of their most convincing 45 minutes of the season, with a Dairon Asprilla’s 42nd-minute goal building on Yimmi Chara’s 12th-minute opener to put the team on track to victory. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, that path was undeterred, but starting in the 63th minute, Portland’s chance to make up ground on MLS’s Western Conference leaders started to slip away.

That’s when Deiber Caicedo, with a great individual effort stretching from midfield to inside the Portland penalty area, cut the Timbers’ lead in half with a shot rolled inside Steve Clark’s right post. Twelve minutes later, Brian White beat Portland right back Josecarlos Van Rankin on a close-range, aerial challenge, heading home a cross from the byline to make it 2-2.

Then, in the 82nd minute, in a moment that echoed stoppage time of Saturday’s loss to the Galaxy, Van Rankin was whistled for a foul after a lunge in the penalty area. Whitecaps forward Cristian Dájome beat Clark into the left side of goal to deliver a valuable three points for Vancouver.

“We definitely leave [the game] with a bitter taste [in our mouths],” Chara said through a translator after the match, “because we had a great first half with two goals that put us on top. We knew it was hard match, a very good team to play against, and they can definitely do that. They can complicate the match and score whenever they need to.”

“We started losing the ball too easily in the second half,” Savarese said. “We started to allow them to get into good areas. Then, when you look at the three goals, the three goals for me are three goals that we, as a team, need to do much better [on]. It starts from me, as the coach, and then everybody has to take responsibility …”

For the Whitecaps, the victory temporarily vaults the team above the playoff line in the West, moving Vancouver one point ahead of Real Salt Lake, albeit with one extra game played. For the Timbers, the loss leaves them six points back of third-place Colorado and only one point up on the fifth place Galaxy.

Though those standings are important, the Timbers now have more immediate concerns. After reaching the end of August with the second-worst defense in the league, Portland's goal prevention improved, with the team keeping clean sheets in the three games that started a 7-0-1 (W-L-D) run. When the Galaxy snapped that run this weekend, they did so with the first multi-goal performance against an 11-man Timbers team since August 21. The only time Portland conceded multiple goals in their unbeaten run, they had been reduced to 10 men on September 15 against Colorado.

Against Vancouver, the defense’s problems felt more acute. Part of that may have been the turnaround — the potential 2-0 win that became a 3-2 loss. Part of that may have been the déjà vu after what happened against the Galaxy, but part of that, too many have been how it all happened. For two games in a row, a last-second lunge in the penalty area was the difference between one point and none.

As with the postmortem of Saturday’s game, Portland’s coaching staff will have to assess how likely tonight’s mistakes are to reoccur. Unfortunately, the outcome of that analysis might not be as sanguine. Against the Galaxy, LA broke through when Larrys Mabiala whiffed on a clearance, doing so in a way that he never has as a Timber, before. It was easy to see that was unlikely to happen again, even if the penalty Van Rankin was called for was more worrisome.

Tonight, those worries resurfaced in the 82nd minute, but the other two goals were troubling, too. On Vancouver’s first, Caicedo dribbled through the heart of Portland’s midfield, was able to isolate himself on Mabiala, and found room through the right of the Timbers’ back line when Dario Zuparic tracked another Whitecap into the penalty area. It should never be that easy to score.

On the second goal, Vancouver was forced into a hopeful, looping cross to the far post — the type of cross that teams must be able to deal with, at an MLS level. Though Van Rankin was put in a tough spot — having to drop to quickly the depth of his centerbacks before recovering to White — but it was still his responsibility to stay close to Vancouver’s primary target. Ultimately and again, it was too easy for White to bring the Whitecaps even.

“For a game like this, at home, not to be able to capitalize and take care of business as a team, and still now trying to fight to get the points we need to qualify [for the playoffs], it’s not good enough …,” Savarese said.

That’s why tonight’s outcome feels more telling than the Galaxy loss. It’s not because the Timbers were at home on Wednesday but not Saturday, and it’s not because they’re still dealing with the injuries and absences of players like Claudio Bravo, Diego Chara and Bill Tuiloma. It’s because there’s a potential pattern, here. There are flaws, and there are mistakes that harken back to the weaknesses we saw earlier this season.

The Timbers have shown they’re capable of dealing with those weaknesses. Now, with four games to go, they again have to right their course. The team’s defending is back in focus.